Make a difference, one by one

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Project Starfish helps families buffeted by the tides

“I just couldn’t get her out of my mind,” Pam Jandl said.

Working with Head Start, Jandl met lots of women and kids in tough straits. But when a Head Start mom came to her seeking a referral to what would be her third shelter, Jandl couldn’t stop thinking about the woman. She called her friend, Mary Vanderwert, who agreed: “We’ve got to do something.”

The Starfish story

A man was walking along a beach on a beautiful day. In the distance he could see a girl going back and forth between the surf’s edge and the beach. As the man approached he could see that there were hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand as the result of the natural action of the tide.

The man was stuck by the apparent futility of the task. There were far too many starfish; many were sure to perish. As he approached, the girl kept picking up starfish one by one and throwing them into the surf.

As he came up to the girl he said, “What are you doing? There are thousands of miles of beach covered with starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The girl looked at the man. She then stooped down, picked up one more starfish and threw it back into the ocean. She turned back to the man and said, “It sure made a difference to that one!”

Beyond holiday giving

Nine years ago, “Project Starfish” grew out of that desire to do something for one person, and others like her. Jandl and Vanderwert were both single moms who knew each other through Head Start. “Money was tight, but homelessness wasn’t imminent for us,” Vanderwert said. The two moms were looking for some way to give back to their community, and to show their kids the importance of helping others.

They marveled at the outpouring of giving around the holidays: Congregations, families and office groups serve dinners, deliver meals or buy families food, clothing and gifts. Vanderwert and Jandl wondered how to extend that holiday spirit-or at least its impact on people’s lives-beyond the holidays. They put their heads together with several other families, and a simple plan emerged.

“We decided to just ask people for money,” Vanderwert said. They and their collaborators (one of whom came up with the “Project Starfish” name, which comes from the story of a girl throwing starfish back into the ocean to save them) did this through a fund-raising letter sent out during the holiday season, and by getting people together to go Christmas caroling, seeking donations as they went.

“We sent the letter to everyone-our relatives, friends, enemies,” Vanderwert said with a laugh. That first year, they raised $8,000. The second year, they doubled it. Last year they raised $18,000 around Christmas, and supplemented it by holding backyard fund-raising parties during the summer. Today they have some 500 people on their mailing list, and 80 to 100 people show up for caroling night in December. They meet at Linwood Recreation Center in St. Paul and break into groups of 10 to 15, Vanderwert said, “so they can make a lot of noise.”

The neighborhood is blanketed with fliers in advance so people are prepared; Starfish also leaves envelopes so those who won’t be home can donate.

One family at a time

Vanderwert and Jandl may not be able to help all of the more than 20,000 homeless Minnesotans, but they’ve helped Kim (and Tina, and Kristine, and Julie). This year they’ve helped 38 families with rent, a security deposit, or even a down payment.

When it came to disbursing the funds, it took a little while to find the right approach. Early on, Starfish helped families for an entire year, “but that turned out to be a lot of social work we weren’t really prepared for,” Vanderwort said. Then they tried turning over the money they raised to an agency serving the homeless, but they “didn’t feel connected enough” to the people they were helping-they didn’t know their stories.

Today, Starfish gets referrals from many sources-Head Start, county agencies, churches, individuals-that know people needing help. Families sometimes come to them: “They know the money will go right to their landlord and they won’t have to jump through a lot of hoops,” Vanderwert said. Sometimes, Project Starfish helps for three to six months, until the family gets past a rough patch or, for example, Section 8 comes through.

Kim’s rough patch came more suddenly than most. A single mom with two kids, she took in four more when their mother-her sister-entered long-term treatment for chemical dependency. Kim missed over three weeks of work trying to arrange childcare. Project Starfish helped her get back on track with two months’ rent ($1,600) while the paperwork went through for childcare assistance.

Those needing help must meet only two criteria: households must include children, and they must complete a one-page form. “Basically, it’s ‘what is the need, do you have kids, and who is your landlord,'” Vanderwert said.

Sometimes there is no landlord in the picture. Project Starfish recently learned of a grandmother who had lived in her home for 27 years. She had custody of her 4-year-old grandchild, and had lost her job. She qualified for MFIP (Minnesota Family Investment Program), but wouldn’t start getting checks until December. Starfish helped tide her over with a $560 mortgage payment.

Jandl points out the importance of keeping people out of homelessness; once people lose their homes, they can go into a downward spiral from which it is difficult to emerge. It’s hard to find a job without an address. And, Jandl believes, stable housing is especially crucial for kids. She recalled a 13-year-old who lived in both a car and a motel over a 14-month period. After Project Starfish helped with the family’s housing situation, the girl went from being a failing student to a “B” student over the course of one semester.

Jandl and Vanderwert usually don’t know what happens farther down the road with the families they help. Unlike many programs, there are no formal follow-up visits or progress reports to submit. Jandl considers the help of Project Starfish “a gift.” There are no strings attached, and once it’s given, you might not know exactly how (or even whether) it impacted someone’s life. “And that’s OK,” Jandl said.

They do know, though, how Starfish has impacted their own kids. Once, they took a family to Target to get sheets for the beds they would be sleeping in. They didn’t have sheets already, because they hadn’t had beds. The shopping trip made a big impression on the kids, who had taken sheets, and beds for granted.

The ripple effect

Starfish helps between 12 and 20 families per year, Vanderwert said. This year a few more backyard parties allowed them to continue helping families into the fall-for a total of 38 families, which she called “a record.” Vanderwert estimates that about $26,000 has been raised this year.

Over the years, other formal and informal groups have found their own ways to pitch in with the work of Project Starfish. For example, there’s a group in Bryn Mawr in Minneapolis that goes caroling every year. “We’d dearly love it,” Vanderwert said, “if there would be caroling groups all over the metro.”

In the meantime, come to Linwood Rec Center, 860 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul, starting at 5 p.m. on Sun., Dec. 16. You’ll be heartily welcomed by Vanderwert, Jandl and a few dozen other souls ready to raise their voices and a few thousand dollars.